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Again the weather's wrath Tropical Storm Fran: Emergency preparations, research can help to limit damage.


THIS WAS NOT supposed to happen again so soon -- a common thought as Tropical Storm Fran unleashed its destructive force this weekend.

Still recovering from the savage fury of January's snowmelt floods, the Middle Atlantic region was slammed by 120-mph winds and flash flooding that left 22 persons dead and damage of more than $1 billion. Thousands were left homeless, some 1.5 million households lost electric power.

Better prepared for floods this time, communities in Western Maryland, Washington and Virginia were nonetheless inundated by the swiftly rising waters.

Riverfront homes and stores, painfully rebuilt after the January disaster, were again flooded. The Hancock public library was evacuated of books and equipment just days before its scheduled reopening after repairs of the winter deluge's damage. Nearly 90 percent of the expensive repairs to the C&O; Canal National Historic Park this year were destroyed.

Major highways were closed by floodwaters and uprooted trees, including U. S. 40 in southern Harford County, and rail service was disrupted. A storm-damaged ship leaked 7,000 gallons of diesel fuel into the Inner Harbor.

The hurricane, downgraded to a tropical storm as it hit inland, re-emphasized the unpredictability of destructive weather phenomena. Tropical Storm Agnes, which last produced the magnitude of flooding seen this year, was termed a 100-year event. But it was only 24 years ago. These statistical classifications can deceive laymen and experts alike.

Shifting weather patterns and man-made changes to landscape can produce more destruction, at least to human habitat, than was the case a century ago. Weather doesn't perform in exact cycles; two 100-year storms can occur within a few years. Rising costs of disaster relief and insurance payouts also magnify the economic impact of each new storm.

Better emergency preparations and weather forecasts have helped to mitigate storm damages. Weather scientists are studying Fran to improve their hurricane behavior predictions, which could save lives and property. But they still face formidable limitations of nature.

Pub Date: 9/10/96

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